Getting blamed for a colleague’s screw-up doesn’t just feel crappy, it also puts you in a difficult spot. If you say nothing, you’re taking the fall for someone else’s mistake, which might reflect on how well (or not) your boss thinks you can do your job. But if you speak up, you risk seeming petty or even dishonest. So you have to proceed with extreme caution.
Here’s what to do the next time you find yourself in that situation:
Discredit Where Discredit Is Due
First things first, it’s almost never a good idea to just silently accept blame for something that isn’t actually your fault. There are exceptions to every rule, but here are the only two circumstances where it’s a reasonable strategy:
1. It’s such a minor issue that no one actually cares. This only applies if the supervisors or other stakeholders involved are pretty blasé about it, and if it’s an isolated incident (not the latest mistake by someone whose work is generally shoddy). If it feels like you’ll just confuse things further by trying to explain—that it’ll involve a level of detail that the situation doesn’t warrant—then you can hold off.
2. You want to do a favor for the mistake-maker—and it’s a relatively small error. If it’s a colleague who’s recently done you a solid, or someone with more to lose (an up-and-coming junior person who doesn’t have a great relationship with their boss, for instance), then you can keep quiet. However, be careful about this one, because you don’t want to be covering up someone’s chronic poor performance.
Notice that there’s no “No. 3) To be nice” or “No. 4) To avoid having a tough conversation.” Being forthcoming about process problems doesn’t make you a tattletale or a jerk—it makes you a forthright professional who recognizes when an organization isn’t functioning properly. Managers need to know if someone’s not pulling their weight—they can’t do their jobs if they’re misinformed about who needs discipline or extra coaching.
So if you decide keep your mouth shut when accused of someone else’s error, make absolutely sure you’re doing it for one of these two reasons, and not out of a misplaced sense of responsibility for other people’s mistakes.
The Truth Will Set You Free
Let’s assume that none of your coworkers are outright liars. Realistically that might not always be the case, but I want to believe that most people are fundamentally honest—and more importantly, universal benefit of the doubt is the best approach strategically. If someone’s a crook, that’ll become apparent eventually, and you can watch it happen from your position on the high road.
The next step is following up with the right people. Who those people are will depend on your role, your relationships with your coworkers, and the nature of the mistake.
If you’ve been implicated in writing, then you want to make sure the truth gets documented as well. In some cases—with coworkers you know have integrity—you might even forward the original message to them with a note like, “Billy seems to think I messed up the sales projections, but didn’t your team work on that?” A good colleague will probably jump into the conversation to clear your name, but not everyone will take the hint. (Keep this in mind whenever you’re the one in the wrong—reliably taking responsibility for your own mistakes will prove that you’re trustworthy.)
With less dependable actors in the mix, you’ll have to do the dirty work yourself—but as with any of these delicate situations, you want to be as dispassionate as possible. You might suspect there was some creative license involved with someone else’s explanation, but don’t imply that anyone was being intentionally misleading. Just stick to the facts: “Hi all, I just wanted to clear up the workflow on this project since there seems to be some confusion. The sales projections actually came from Tina’s team, so hopefully she can explain the inaccuracies.” And then you copy Tina on the reply.
Basically, the maneuver here is to pretend like your reputation isn’t at stake, in spite of how you really feel. If someone told you, “New York is on the West Coast of the United States,” you wouldn’t get all how dare you—you’d just correct them based on the factual reality of the world we all live in. That’s the tone you’re going for here as well: A kind of bemused vibe of, “I’m not sure why you got this wrong, but no worries—let’s clear it up once and for all.”
Calling For Backup
For complex or super-serious situations, it might be wise to enlist your manager as your ally (or another senior colleague who knows the whole story, if the accusation originates with your own boss). If the screw-up involves a lot of people—or one particular person who’s known to be especially prickly—then a supervisor can help get to the bottom of things. An informal (face-to-face or phone) conversation is probably best, although e-mail will work if necessary. As always, be calm and factual—and as succinct as possible—as you lay out the details and then solicit advice on how to handle it. Even if your boss tells you to deal with it yourself, that preliminary discussion will prove invaluable if things escalate.
Nuh-Uh! / Yuh-Huh!
Documentation can save your hide in these situations, but if the mistake originates in the course of verbal conversation, the only official evidence will be highly fallible human memory. Someone still has to back down, though—and sometimes, for whatever reason, that person is going to have to be you. But that doesn’t mean you have to admit outright defeat. In the same neutral “mistakes were made” tone as in all these other examples, you can issue a verdict of, “Well, I remember it differently, but what’s done is done, and I suppose this is a lesson to take better notes.” (And then, needless to say, you do start keeping a more robust record so that you don’t find yourself in this position again.)
Sometimes when a big project goes awry, there’s no clear target for blame, and so it just kind of splashes all over everyone involved. If that happens—or you otherwise get dinged for something you really couldn’t control—try not to let it get to you. A crusade to indict the real culprit isn’t a good look. If your work is otherwise good, and you’ve proven yourself to be an upright citizen in the office, your reputation can safely survive a few mistakes—even the ones that aren’t actually yours.
This article is adapted from Is This Working?: The Businesslady’s Guide to Getting What You Want from Your Career by Courtney C.W. Guerra (The Businesslady) and reprinted with permission from Adams Media, a division of Simon & Schuster.